Reflections on two stories from Japanese youth work

Youth work as a distinctive practice 

As well as conveying powerful messages in their own right, these stories for me again show the value of using story-telling to clarify and reaffirm features of youth work which help to define its distinctiveness as a practice with young people. They particularly highlight the opportunities it can open up over time for young people to engage by choice in supportive but challenging adult relationships which they might avoid, even resist, in other ‘professional’ contexts. To quote one of the story-tellers’ own conclusion on this:

The dialogues between Yuuki, Kenta and I may have been trivial for them. But I have realised the meaning of the incident changes when I ‘write the story’ thinking about my involvement as a worker in their everyday life. Moreover, the in-depth reading of the process of the involvement has given me an opportunity to reflect on the process – every behaviour in the story starts to have a new meaning, and the meaning comes to overlap with the practice of ‘now, in this moment’. (MY[1]: 5)

Examples of such features within the two stories would seem to include:

The dedicated attention to, and the conscious inputs into, inter-personal processes for building trust between the young people involved and the workers

I have a habit of wanting to ‘teach’, and I didn’t want myself ending up teaching Yuuki…. So I said to him, ‘shall we go to the lobby together?’ (MY: 2)

 I wouldn’t be able to with her if she labels me on mother’s side. I tried to appeal to Myuki by explaining to her mother she should prioritise what her daughter wants to do. Despite my effort, Myuki remained silent… I made a suggestion with a hope that I could develop a connection with her: ‘You could drop your bag (here) after school and play with your friends’… I managed to convince them that my suggestion was the starting point for the building of trust between Myuki and I. (FN[2]: 1-2)

It’s about a mutual relationship, which is based not only on the young person’s trust towards the worker, but the worker’s trust towards the young person. (MY: 3)

Consciously seeking to work with and through the young people’s peer relationships to identify and build on the support and developmental opportunities these can offer.

… I then made a suggestion to them, ‘I would want to chat with Kenta. Maybe I will leave with you guys…’ I got ready quickly and came out of the centre. They were holding their bikes outside’. (MY: 3)

I was conscious that such a dialogue can also occur between peers. The route to the bus stop we three walked together was the moment that valued peer learning. (MY: 4) 

Staff encourage the communication between children, particularly those who are in the same age groups. Staff try and build the relationships amongst children through activities such as reading and playing cards. (FN: 1)

I also told her mother that spending time with friends was very important for (Myuki) (FN: 2)      

Within these processes, starting where the young people who are actually involved are starting

I wish to share with young people their ‘culture’, values and viewpoints through engaging with them. It’s about having dialogues asking them, ‘why do you think so?…’ (MY: 2)

I have had a number of conversations with Yuuki and Kenta in the past. The topics vary depending on what they want to talk about… (MY: 4)

Through conversation, staff try and understand how children are doing at school, and with friends and family. If there is something concerned in the previous week, staff revisit it in a natural manner. Observing children doing homework, staff also think about where children are struggling or can do more. (FN: 1)        

While recognising the importance for young people of their ‘transitions’, giving dedicated attention also to their ‘here-and-now’ – their ‘everyday life – and responding purposefully to this. (FN: 1)’

 I felt his worry was exacerbated because he burdened himself with his responsibility as the first son. I tried to cheer him up… Kenta then said, ‘if this didn’t happen, I was going to start living on my own’. (MY: 4)

(The) process was not about letting her avoid, forget or accept the reality, but about strengthening our trust through me imagining and understanding her ‘usual’. (FN: 3)

The relationship differs from adults vs children, supporters vs beneficiaries, teachers vs students; it’s more about ‘being together’ or ‘living together’. We have merged into Myuki’s ‘everyday’, and Myuki has merged into our ‘everyday’… We are now moving forward from ‘here and now’ towards ‘hereafter’ of Myuki’s life.   (FN: 3)

As a worker, responding ‘in the moment’ in improvised and innovative but also in self-aware and purposeful ways, drawing on an analysis and understandings of these young people, their actions, situations and the wider issues affecting them…

I struggle to find a way to approach those who are involved in violence… (MY: 2)

Through my involvement with Yuuki, I have faced my own emotions, persistency and immaturity. (MY: 3)

They talk as they wish, and I as a worker respond to how the conversation develops. My response can be seen… At the same time, Yuuki’s story shows I as a worker responding to him with intention. The theme I chose was ‘to broaden the understanding of gender roles’ and ‘to revise the stereotype of women playing the carer role’ (MY: 4)

… including working consciously within professional-personal boundaries which can be flexible and permeable.

It seemed to me he was inquiring honestly about the other person’s (the worker’s) way of living …That is why I felt it was important for me to tell him my own view. (MY: 2)

It was a natural flow for me to have a conversation with the on the way to the bus stop because I had told Yuuki why I had to leave soon. However, talking with young people outside the centre could be seen as ‘excessive behaviour’… Was I conversing with them as an individual? The answer is no. I regarded the conversation between us as part of the youth work. (MY:4).

Staff stay with them, continue chatting outside of the building, and often take them home. Even after they went home, staff stay in touch with them via email and LINE till late at night until receiving the final word, ‘good night!’ (FN: 1)       

There were many occasions she didn’t want to leave (the centre) so I walked her to the station or took her home. While walking, Myuki told me about school and family. It seemed she felt more relaxed talking while walking… (FN: 2)

I received a call from Myuki from a phone box. ‘I was going to kill myself, but I cannot’, she was crying. I told her where to meet with me, and I rushed by car. I decided to take a drive with Myuki as I knew she wouldn’t talk if I question her face-to-face. I checked if she was injured… (FN: 3)

Both within these encounters and over longer periods, moving at the young person’s pace, allowing the time needed for the processes to develop and any possible ‘outcomes’ and ‘solutions’ to take effect.

Kenta has been involved in the centre at his own pace… (MY: 5)

I was aware of his habit to talk bit by bit through my engagement with him for several years… I have known him for nearly 10 years, but he didn’t talk much when he was an early teenager… he may feel comfortable talking to me, who he has known for 10 years. (MY: 5)

It seems our relationship has developed since the incident. Small and large incidents continued to occur, and we staff have been called every time. (FN: 3)   

Evidencing ‘impact’ and ‘outcomes’ via story-telling – work in progress?

Though these two stories also offer some potentially significant indications of what the young people involved took away from the practice described, not least as they might define this, these comments have not focussed directly on these ‘impacts’ and ‘outcomes’. As with the suggested practice features which help to clarify it as youth work, here too the ‘evidence’ seems to me still to be largely implicit and so under-articulated. This poses the challenge still of ‘unpicking’ stories such as these in more systematic and focused ways specifically in order to present this evidence as credibly as possible, not least for (at best) sceptical audiences such as policy-makers and funders.

Bernard Davies

September 2017 (Reviewed and revised January 2018)

[1] Misako Yokoe

[2] Fumiyuki Nakatsuka